Tuesday, July 04, 2006

all about we


I recently re-read an interesting essay by Ken Edwards called Grasping the Plural, collected in Denise Riley’s critical anthology Poets On Writing. Ken’s essay is about the use of the first person plural in poetry. It reads this tendency as a danger, and marks the places where others have fallen or warned of traps. It’s obvious that poetry is almost exclusively always the product of a single writer. The few exceptions I can think of either properly fall into the category of editing (Pound and Eliot) or into the murky field of translation. Therefore it is odd that the speaking presence in a poem is so often figured as ‘we’. Once you start poking around in this stuff all kinds of interesting things come up. If I was more diligent and organised I’d write a proper essay on this, but you’re going to get nothing more than a list of unconnected thoughts. What are you going to do, fail me?

Is there an atavistic memory of bardic / shamanic tradition? Of someone being the group’s speaker-to-itself? Or a kind of delegate? You’d be tracing ideas of leadership, identity, all that stuff about the body of the king. Actually, whilst there clearly would be a one-standing-for-many or a many-speak-through-one phenomenon, it strikes me that the power of this subject would lie in its singularity, and that the 1PP (first person plural) would not figure in the texts I hypothesise. Anyone know? Ancient texts (eddas, and such) with a plural voice?

What about the ‘Royal We’? When does that date from? Anyone know?

Psalm 137 –‘…we hung our harps on the willows…’ That’s more it, isn’t it? And that’s exilic, pressure, displacement. The ‘we’ seem scattered in the psalm, sitting by the rivers (plural), a song about not singing, although it focuses in on the first person by the time you get to ‘my right hand forget her cunning’. There’s something odd about that, a dissonant shift that properly enacts the vicious tribal angst of that poem. It ends with them threatening to smash their enemies babies against stones. That’s what we will do. It has a subtly different moral force.

Blake’s Jerusalem as anthem– unusual in that it is first person, where most are second. Is that why it appeals to dissenting types like me? Because we don’t have to sing ‘we’? We don’t have to be part of a congregation, even if we’re part of a choir? Like old Blake himself who’d as soon’ve burned his burin as crept about in a church.

Other things I suspect are relevant:
Whitman – ‘I contain multitudes’
George Oppen ‘Of Being Numerous’
Althea & Donna – Uptown Top Rankin. “See me in mi ‘alter back” – they both sing, going double. Doppelganging.

Anyway I’m supposed to be preparing for an important interview on Wednesday, so will leave it at that for now. More thoughts on pronouns soon. Can’t wait, eh?

Comments:
How about that rasta "I & I" thing? According to the Rasta Patois Dictionary (don't leave home without it): "Rastafari speech eliminates you, me, we, they, etc., as divisive and replaces same with communal I and I. I and I embraces the congregation in unity with the Most I (high) in an endless circle of inity (unity)."
 
"I am the Hollow Man"

Less Elliot, more Marvel Comics.
 
The voice in The Hollow men is weird, isn't it? It's choric I suppose. "We are the hollow men/We are the stuffed men". I suppose it's meant to sound like something out of Aeschylus, but it always sounded like a bit of self-consciously 'modern' opera written by a teacher. You can imagine the staging - sixth formers looking all gaunt, a bit of Bartok on the gramophone...perplexed parents, local vicar pretending to be fascinated. In its own way it's as comforting as Dad's Army. "Ach, we're a' doooomed!"
 
Mulling this over I began to think of the "I" (and it relation to 'we') in literature and art and stuff and was reminded of this passage...
" of more significance, in a literary context was the passing of a Copyright Act in 1709 which confirmed the individual ownership of words as "intellectual property". Since the notion of individual ownership led in turn to the affirmation of the romantic selfhood this act of legislation had aesthetic as well as economic consequences" (Albion P Ackroyd p424). One of the consequences Ackroyd argues was the prizing of originality in art (Shakespeare etc never much worried about plagiarism). And this got me thinking about the Blues (you would be surprised how often that happens to me, then again maybe you wouldn't) and this passage from "Feel Like Going Home" (Guralnick) "There are many popular misconceptions about the blues. For one thing its thought to be an intensely personal music (guralnick then lists some blues artists who are indeed individualists then says they)are exceptions to the general rule. For the blues ...is a highly conservative institution.Its structure is rigid, its lyrics derivative and there is little place in its cannon for oddness or eccentricity....Blues is a 12 bar structure, three line verse, the words rhyme and most frequently from a common pool of lyrics or 'floating verses'...there is a common thread of ideas as well as lyrics which enables most blues players to sit in with any other and some of the most notable collabrations on record have been the result of chance studio meetings which would not have been possible in any other music." And it occured to me that the "I" of the blues (eg I woke up this mornin'..) is almost a "we".
Cheers Gavin.
 
Also re Psalm 137 is the (non) Singer not initially allying themselves to the group of exiles outlining the sorrow that (s)he and his/her fellows feel and,when asked/taunted to sing a song of Zion (which sounds like the name of a cable TV show somewhere)vows that he would rather his right hand (with which he would have played the now abandoned Harp) wither and tongue stick to the roof of his mouth before he will sing for his captors (both of these things would be disasterous for a Singer remember). He then goes on to praise/bless those that will slaughter his captors off spring ie not what he and the other exiles (we) will do but rather a wished for event that others will do. Gavin
 
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